Elance is a global marketplace for freelancers. You post a job you want done, and freelancers around the world will bid on it in a matter of hours. Once the price and deadline are agreed upon, the work will be delivered to you very rapidly. Because of its global nature, your costs may be very low.

Elance has a pool of 135,000 pros expert in programming, design, writing, and legal matters. People use them to design a logo, create marketing materials, tweak a database, code a website, create an iPhone app. I’ve used Elance three times now and have had fantastic results. For instance recently I had to move 3,000 images from Cool Tools’ old Moveable Type database to a new one in a very hairy non-trivial manner. Estimates from US shops for writing the necessary script went as high $6,000 and would take months from specs to testing. We went on Elance, got a bid for $250 to do it manually (without scripts) and it was done perfectly in a week. You could start a company with them. In fact Kevin Rose hired an Elancer to code the first version of the now-popular website Digg.

Elance’s escrow service holds the payment and protects both the work provider and you the employer. The site provides status updates on work done, and plenty of communication between the parties. Workers must pass a competency test to qualify to be listed. Some freelancers can also pass expertise tests in a mild form of certification, say for working on java or ajax, etc. Elance freelancers did about $60 million of work last year and less than 1% of the jobs had any kind of dispute, and most of those were self-resolved by the fact that the entire transaction correspondence is logged.

While I went to Elance for cheap labor, others go to it to get jobs done in a hurry, or to find expertise that they can’t find locally. (Fifty percent of Elancers live in North America.) If you have work, and you know what you want, this is a great service.

The real trick in using Elance, or its competitors RentACoder, GetAFreelancer and oDesk (which I have not used) and Guru (which I have used with satisfaction) is in being able to specify the deliverable you want without spending more time that it would take to do the project itself. This kind of outsourcing is best for bite-sized chunks of work. The more precise you can detail your job the better that Elance or the others will work for you. It’s not good for consulting, hand-holding, or mind-changing assignments. But it can be cheap enough that you can try lots of things. It costs you nothing to post a job on Elance. (The winning provider will pay a 5-10% fee to Elance.) You can pay with PayPal.

And it is not just for coders. I hired a guy to run ethernet cable in our home, and others have found a videographer for their wedding, or a translator for their manual, etc. Like any remote relationship, you get what you put into it. Elance, Guru and GetaFreelancer use escrows, which protect you (and the worker). Elance has open bidding, GetAFreelancer has the option of closed bidding. To date, Elance is the marketplace that seems to have the most action so that is why I use them.

It’s a great tool when you need to hire expertise.

-- KK